Politics & Policy

D.C. United’s Soccer Stadium Swindle

D.C. United Stadium (Image: dcunited.com)

D.C. United, the capital’s professional soccer team, is set to get a new stadium — thanks to some taxpayer dollars, as well as to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s use of eminent domain to procure some of the land. Scheduled to open for the 2017 season, the stadium is the product of a junior-varsity version of the extortion that’s now standard practice in pro sports, with the franchise threatening to move unless municipal officials ponied up lush public subsidies and tax breaks to help it build a new home.

Compared to D.C.’s last stadium deal, this one isn’t atrocious. The city will spend about $150 million refurbishing the neighborhood surrounding the site, installing street signs, filling in potholes, painting sidewalks, and so on. But the team itself will be financing stadium construction — well, aided by tax benefits totaling nearly $50 million.

This project was ushered in by Mayor Bowser’s predecessor, Vincent Gray, the Platonic ideal of a bland bureaucratic functionary. Desperate to secure some sort of legacy achievement, Gray hammered down the final details in the last months of his term.

City and team officials have not been content simply to brandish hazy notions of civic pride when selling the project to the public. Oh, no. This stadium deal, like virtually every other one in this country, is wrapped up in grand promises of economic revitalization.

Mayor Bowser says the stadium will “generate jobs for District residents as my administration creates pathways to the middle class.” D.C. United’s press people have called it an “economic development plan.” And they recruited former NAACP chief Ben Jealous to star in a promotional video in which he predicts the stadium will “increase prosperity for all.”

All of this is, of course, nonsense. It’s flat-earth economics. The overwhelming consensus among professional economists is that sports stadiums have virtually no impact on local job creation, business growth, or tax revenue.

D.C. already has a hulking monument to the false promise of stadiums: the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, D.C. United’s current home. Located about two miles east of Capitol Hill, RFK has been in operation for over 50 years and has housed dozens of pro teams — and it’s completely irrelevant to the local economy. So irrelevant, in fact, that the city government has no idea what to do with it once D.C. United moves. At a recent public hearing soliciting input from the surrounding community, suggestions included turning it into a dog park, a mini-golf course, and a nature trail. Another idea written on the whiteboard was simply  “NO NFL STADIUM.”

Sports stadiums have virtually no impact on local job creation, business growth, or tax revenue.

This new soccer stadium is the natural outgrowth of a delusional development paradigm that’s long dominated D.C. politics. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser calls it the “edifice error,” the idea that physical structures like convention centers and light-rail lines drive urban development. That’s the exact reverse of the truth. And one of the most powerful examples of the edifice error in action is a building that’s played an odd role in the completion of the D.C. United deal.

The Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center was built in 1986 by then-mayor Marion Barry. Its arc perfectly mirror its creator’s. Barry was a genuine civil-rights hero endowed with Bill Clinton–level electric charisma who squandered his talents, transformed city hall into an industrial-scale patronage machine, and spent the back nine of his life in drug-addled self-parody.

The Reeves Center was the first major municipal building constructed in the wake of the 1968 race riots. It’s situated at the heart of U Street, a vital African-American cultural and commercial vein that, at the time, was plagued by heavy drug violence. Berry intended Reeves to anchor redevelopment. Instead, it steadily devolved into a den of government dysfunction and petty graft. Today, its most popular “civic service” is selling lottery tickets.

Normally, Reeves would just sit in expensive decrepitude for perpetuity. But over the past couple of years, a strip just south of the center has undergone rapid gentrification. An abandoned laundromat was turned into one of the most profitable restaurants in the country. A historic homeless shelter called “The Mission” has been converted into a luxury apartment building called, inadvisably, “The Mission.” Local diners have effectively infinite options for procuring overpriced cocktails and tapas.

That prosperity has steadily crept north, and the Reeves Center — or, more precisely, the land that it sits on top of — has suddenly become a hot commodity. As part of the original soccer deal, Vincent Gray offered to sell a private developer the Reeves property at a discount in exchange for the land it owned at the planned stadium site. Bowser eventually nixed that provision, the developer balked, and thus the eminent-domain filing.

What exactly sparked development in that corridor is a complicated question. But we do know one thing for certain: It has nothing to do with big new buildings or sports teams.

— Rob Montz is a writer and video producer living in Washington, D.C. Find his work at: RobMontz.com.

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